A tech en­tre­pre­neur’s ven­ture in the snoop trade

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - BY THOMAS HEATH

“I’d like to know if the per­son I’m dat­ing has dis­turb­ing skele­tons in their closet.”

“I’d like to know ifmy part­ner is cheat­ing on me.”

“I’d like to know if some­one in my life is hid­ing some­thing.”

“I’d like to know if my new nanny or babysit­ter is go­ing to keep my kids safe.”

Welcome to the home­page of Trus­tify, the Georgetown-based Web site that seeks to dis­rupt the pri­vate in­ves­tiga­tive pro­fes­sion the­way Zil­low up ended real es­tate and Uber crashed into cabs.

“It’s a sec­tor that’s ripe for dis­rup­tion,” said Brian Willing­ham, 39, a long­time pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor and ad­viser to Trus­tify. “There’s some­thing like 50,000-plus pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tors, and the vast ma­jor­ity are prob­a­bly sole op­er­a­tors. It sets eyes a glow for an en­tre­pre­neur who wants to take a chunk of a large, frag­mented busi­ness that has done things a cer­tain way for a long time.”

Lo­cal tech­nol­o­gist Danny Boice, a for­mer De­Matha Catholic High School base­ball star, launched the com­pany out of frus­tra­tion with pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tors he hired dur­ing his di­vorce three years ago.

“I paid a guy a $1,500 re­tainer, and he blew through that in a week,” Boice said. “I felt skeezy.”

So Boice, who has made a few mil­lion dol­lars in start-ups, de­cided to launch a tech­nol­ogy com­pany with a Web site that con­nects pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tors to the masses. The com­pany has 10 em­ploy­ees, is three months old and has grossed about $100,000 so far from link­ing 1,000 jobs to what Boice says is a sta­ble of 2,000 li­censed pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tors. Pri­vate in­ves­tiga­tive ser­vices are a $5 bil­lion in­dus­try in the United States alone.

Trus­tify en­ables peo­ple to hire

Danny Boice de­scribes Trus­tify as “es­sen­tially a lead gen­er­a­tor,” pro­vid­ing “a pre­dictable rev­enue stream” for pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

li­censed pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tors for chunks of time as short as one hour at a rate of $67 an hour. Boice said the com­pany is “es­sen­tially a lead gen­er­a­tor, a pre­dictable rev­enue stream that al­lows [in­ves­ti­ga­tors] to pay their elec­tric bills.” Trus­tify pays the pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor $30 an hour and keeps the rest.

Boice has in­vested $200,000 in Trus­tify and plans to so­licit sev­eral mil­lion dol­lars from pri­vate in­vestors next month. He even­tu­ally wants to sell stock to the public.

“Online dat­ing is our bread and but­ter,” said Boice, who is also the com­pany’s chief ex­ec­u­tive. “We are get­ting dozens and dozens of jobs through online daters.

“What’s hap­pen­ing is that the younger gen­er­a­tion is re­ly­ing on [apps] Tin­der and Hinge to meet part­ners to hook up with or date. Peo­ple are start­ing to re­al­ize, ‘I don’t know any­thing about them aside from what they told me.’ ”

Phil Bec­nel, a D.C.-based pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor, pre­dicted that Trus­tify will strug­gle, and he said there has been some back­lash against the Web­site within the pro­fes­sion.

“They don’t un­der­stand the in­dus­try, and for that rea­son, it’s not go­ing to work,” said Bec­nel, 41, an ex­pe­ri­enced li­censed in­ves­ti­ga­tor who charges $150 an hour. “Con­duct­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions isn’t like driv­ing a taxi. They are try­ing to de­moc­ra­tize it, and their pitch that it is a cheaper al­ter­na­tive than hir­ing an ex­pe­ri­enced pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor is not based on re­al­ity. It’s an in­dus­try that doesn’t lend it­self to deal­ing with the public through an in­ter­face like an app.”

Bec­nel said he turns down many jobs, for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons, which can in­clude the po­ten­tial client’s state of mind. He said, for ex­am­ple, he won’t ac­cept an as­sign­ment to find an old high school boyfriend or girl­friend.

“We don’t know the terms un­der which those peo­ple split up,” he said. “For all wek now, he or she­was stalk­ing their part­ner. That raises some eth­i­cal ques­tions for us.”

Bec­nel said there is no clear-cut way to de­ter­mine which cases to take and which ones to pass on. He said he gets at least three or four calls a week from peo­ple who may be un­bal­anced and “who want to hire us to do in­ves­ti­ga­tions when all we would be in­ves­ti­gat­ing is some­body’s delu­sional fan­tasies.”

“If we did that,” Bec­nel said, “we would be tak­ing money from peo­ple who are men­tally ill and in­ves­ti­gat­ing oth­ers for no good rea­son.”

Boice said many pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tors turn down jobs that they think would not pay enough, which he said is a ten­dency that Trus­tify is chang­ing.

“The bot­tom line is that there is a con­sumer de­mand for quick cases with lower dol­lar amounts,” Boice said. “The more en­trenched pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tors just aren’t aligned with con­sumer de­mand.”

Trus­tify’s home­page has a tes­ti­mo­nial from a woman who was spooked about a guy she was dat­ing:

“The gut feel­ing I had about my new boyfriend just wouldn’t go away. He didn’t seem to be telling me some­thing, and I was right. He was mar­ried! In­just a sin­gle day my in­ves­ti­ga­tor was able to get the de­tails I had been try­ing to fig­ure out for al­most a month.”

BILL O’LEARY/THE WASHINGTON POST

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